A Sermon for the Sunday after Ascension Day
May 21, 2023 at Holy Communion
God promises: “It shall come to pass afterwards, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (Joel 2:28). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
It’s good to be back with you. I had, of course, been expecting to return; I was looking forward to being back with you. And I imagine that you—and especially our generous Lay Ministers who have been taking care of services these past two weeks (thank you again)—have also been expecting me. And why have you been expecting me back? Well, because I said I would be back. That’s how expectation works. I promise to return, you expect me to do it, and then I make good on my promise.
The reason I’m reflecting this way on expectation is that is has everything to do with what we have heard today. This is the Sunday after the Ascension. Forty days after Easter, Jesus ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father. Forty days after Easter was this Thursday past. But now we look forward to Pentecost, next Sunday. Before he ascended, Jesus told his disciples to wait in prayer for him to send the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. Today, we take the place of the disciples, and pray as they did for the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise. We pray for the gift the Holy Spirit.
So this Sunday is called Expectation Sunday. Jesus promised his disciples the Holy Spirit. They believed him, waiting in the expectation that he would make good on his promise.
I hope that when we pray, we do so with a confident expectation that God will answer the need that we present. But I suspect (based on my own experience) that our prayers are characterized at least as often by uncertainty as expectation. And this might be the reason why: we aren’t praying for things that God has promised.
Confident expectation comes from trusting the word of someone you know to be reliable. We cannot expect even the most reliable people in our lives to do everything that we ask without question. But we can expect them to do what they have promised. So it is with God. Our prayers can be filled with confident expectation if we can learn to pray for the things God promises.
My favourite example from scripture of something God promises to grant when we ask is wisdom. James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” “It will be given him.” What a promise! It is one that I have relied on many times. I have asked God for wisdom in the confident expectation that he would deliver, and that hasn’t necessarily cleared up difficulties in any particular moment, but on the whole, and thanks be to God, I believe that God has delivered. When I look back on the biggest decisions of my life, I see more wise than foolish ones.
I have also turned many times to the promise in Philippians 1:6 that “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” The promise that God would finish in me what he started has given me hope when I am most aware of my shortcomings many times.
Today we reflect on the promise of the Holy Spirit. In St Luke’s Gospel, as Jesus teaches about prayer, he says, “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11–14). When a child asks for a good thing, a good father gives it. God will give us the Holy Spirit when we ask him.
And what is this Holy Spirit which we ask for? We’ve been hearing about this from Jesus over the past few weeks in our Gospel readings. It is the Spirit of conviction, leading us to understand what is right and wrong before God (John 16:8). It is the Spirit of truth which teaches us to know God (John 16:13). It is the Spirit of testimony, enabling us to speak about Jesus even in the midst of persecution (John 15:25). We heard that today. St Paul adds that it is the Spirit of adoption by which we know that God is our Father (Romans 8:15). In Isaiah it is “Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:2).
In short, the gift of the Holy Spirit enables us to know God. Do you want to know God? Then pray for the Holy Spirit. And pray with expectation. This is something God has promised to give.